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Saturday, September 28, 2013

Be Better

I found myself saying something to a family member I love very much.  I said "You need to take steps necessary to be better, to get well."  Right after that,  I saw the  picture above, which is a piece by photographer John William Keedy.  This started me thinking about how we perceive normal and abnormal behavior.

One of the interesting features of mental illness is the tendency of some sufferers to resist  treatment.  The resistance is caused by many things. One issue is the desire to avoid the stigma associated with the "mentally ill" label. The mind-altering/personality-altering effects of psychotropic drugs is another hurdle.  When a mentally ill person has full-blown anosognosia, they really believe that they are fine.  It is confusing and alarming to these folks when others tell them they are mentally ill.

Here is the other thing I am learning about mental illness - it is similar to physical diseases in some ways.  If you have diabetes or a heart condition or any other difficult malady and you don't get the appropriate treatment, your disease will progress and you will become  less healthy until you die.  This rule applies to serious mental illness, too.  Serious mental illnesses are progressive.  Untreated sufferers get worse, and often kill themselves when their misery and confusion becomes too much to bear.

Dr. Xavier Amador wrote a book in 2002 entitled "I Am Not Sick, I Don't Need Help."  As I struggled with my own confusion over relatives with mental illness, I ran into a wise person who recommended the book.  I read it, and learned how well-meaning actions can drive a wedge between a mentally healthy person and a mentally ill person. The book is well-written and understandable with a clear blueprint - L.E.A.P., which stands for Listen, Empathize, Agree, Partner.  While the blueprint is clear, executing the plan is hard.  "Sane" responses to the behavior of a mentally ill person get in the way of Dr. Amador's steps.  All the natural feelings that occur when dealing with mentally ill folks - frustration, anger, worry, fear - also impede progress.

After a discouraging series of events, I find myself clinging to hope.  These diseases can be controlled, people do recover.  Good things can happen to the people that I love who are suffering.  While the events "on the ground" may be challenging, this hope remains. 

This will sound trite and corny, but I will never give up that hope.

Monday, September 23, 2013

6th Annual Chicago Blues Harp Bash Featuring Johnny Sansone

I have retreated from the harmonica community over the past few years due to a spike in family needs and work commitments.  I still try to "visit" from time to time.  Since devotion to the harmonica is a decidedly peculiar passion, all devotees tend to bond immediately to each other and treat each other with kindness and empathy. It is the friendliest community of musicians I have found - not much ego and few "cutting contests" amongst harmonica players.  Of course, it is a somewhat nerdy community, because only nerds spend countless hours studying the output of deceased  blues harmonica players.

One of the leaders of this community is a fellow from Joliet IL, Joe Filisko.  Joe is a fantastic harmonica player with ferocious curiosity - he wants to know all about the tin sandwich, he seeks out the music of obscure players that died decades ago and he travels the world playing and teaching at festivals.  He has probably taught more aspiring harmonica players than anyone on the planet.  I am one of his former students, and I am very lucky to have fallen under his tutelage. He is generous with his knowledge and patient when dealing with  incompetent harmonica players.  He also customizes harmonicas (converting store-bought mass-produced pieces of junk into marvelous, high-end musical instruments).  Every serious harmonica player dreams of owning a Filisko harmonica; most never achieve that dream.  Filisko harmonicas are not, as Joe says, "for the general public,"  and he believes that most harmonica players are members of "the general public."

Six years ago, Joe realized that some of his student were serious performers.  He launched a harp bash featuring a handful of local Chicago harmonica folks (mostly his students) and one serious professional "ringer."  The "ringers" at past bashes have included Billy Boy Arnold, Jim Liban, Jerry Portnoy, Sugar Ray  Norcia, and Gary Smith.  If these names mean nothing to you, then you are not a blues harmonica aficionado.

This past Sunday evening, the 6th Annual Chicago Blues Harmonica Bash was held at the Old Town School of Folk Music.  The featured "ringer" was Johnny Sansone.
Sansone is based in New Orleans although he was born and raised in New Jersey.  There are tons of gigs in and around N.O. so Johnny doesn't get to Chicago much these days (he did spend time backing some of the Chicago greats when he was younger - Jimmy Rogers, Robert Junior Lockwood and others).  Sansone is part of the tight New Orleans music scene - hangs with Tab Benoit, Dr. John, Cyril Neville and a host of others.  He is featured at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival.  He is a formidable songwriter, and he plays accordion to boot!

Johnny Sansone closed out the night, playing a mix of originals ("The Lord is Waiting and the Devil Is, Too," "Once It Gets Started") and blues standards ("I'm Just a Bad Boy," "She's Nineteen years Old," "Raining in My Heart").  His harmonica work is technically adept and aggressive.  His tonal choice is edgier than the traditional "fat" Chicago blues harp tone.  He is closer to Paul DeLay; not quite as close to Big Walter Horton.  It is a great, large, passionate sound.  The sound matches Johnny's physical presence.  On stage, Sansone is like a more menacing version of Baloo from Disney's "The Jungle Book."  He commands the stage, and the whole room.  This is not a man to trifle with, no sir.  He played his ass off, and told some amusing stories, too. 

Near the end of his set, Sansone called out Jim Liban, another harp master who was in the audience.  Johnny asked him to come up and play; Jim demurred, saying "I left my harps in Milwuakee."  Joe Filisko quickly produced a full set of Filisko Customs, and Liban came forward.  The combination of Sansone and Liban was a harmonica summit that generated slack-jawed amazement and screaming ecstasy from the harp players in the audience. Liban is a Jedi master of the blues harp, the Yoda of the Mississippi saxophone.  All other professional blues harp players are Liban fans.  He cranked it so hard that Sansone began to complain, "Liban is kicking my ass!"

The Bash performers prior to Sansone's set did not disappoint.  Scott Dirks is a highly skilled harmonicist, author, educator and advocate for the blues harmonica.  He brings deep love and respect for the genre (not to mention chops and decades of playing experience).  Tall Paul Sabel is a member of the younger generation (under 45 years old) of blues harmonica players, and he is definitely an "up and comer" amongst the harp blowers in Chicago.  Grant Kessler and Kirk Manley are long-time Filisko students and local performers that have many gigs under their belts - both have achieved the "big tone harp" sound the Filisko strives to teach his minions.

But the biggest kick came from the opening act, Zoe Savage.  Ms. Savage began taking lessons from Joe Filisko when she was 10 years old.  She has studied hard, played in the advanced Chicago blues harp classes at the Old Town School and is now a formidable performer - and she is also teaching harmonica classes at OTS.  It is unusual to see a woman in her early 20's channeling Little Walter Jacobs, but Ms. Savage can handle the L.W. licks, the tone and the vocals.  This is a young blues harp player who might be famous some day.  It is very gratifying to old fossils like me to see a young person like Zoe come forward and respect this music.

The band that backed all of the harp players was a trio led by Shoji Naito, an excellent traditional blues guitarist.  Shoji is also a skilled harmonica player, so he knew how to support all of the performers that walked the stage last night.

This annual event is always interesting and full of surprises.  Let's hope that Joe Filisko and his crew keep it up.

Sunday, September 08, 2013

James Cotton at SPACE in Evanston IL

First of all, I have to thank the founders of SPACE - the Society for the Preservation for Arts and Culture in Evanston.  Stuart Rosenberg, Craig Golden, Dave Specter and Steve Schwartz.  The combination of Union Pizzeria and SPACE has created a destination dining and entertainment landmark within walking distance of my house.  This is the best thing to happen to the Evanston entertainment scene since Bill's Blues closed - maybe since Amazingrace closed.  I can also have a couple of beers and walk it off after the show on my way home - what's not to like?

James Cotton came to SPACE for the first time last night - that is a picture of him in action last night at the top of this post.  Mr. Cotton is now 78 years old - a contemporary of Buddy Guy, part of the "second great blues generation" that came up to Chicago from the Delta in the 1950's.  Mr. Cotton learned his craft with Sonny Boy Williamson, Howlin' Wolf and Muddy Waters.  He cut his first records at Sun Records in Memphis when he was 15 years old.  In 1954, Muddy Waters heard him in Memphis and hired him to replace Junior Wells, who had abruptly quit Muddy's band.  So Mr. Cotton ended up in Chicago.

James Cotton was a cross-over blues artist.  He became "Mr. Superharp" and played big rock venues in the late 1960's through the 1970's.  Mr. Cotton served as mentor for many aspiring harmonica players; his furious licks and showmanship were much imitated, but never duplicated, by a gang of younger folks.  I have copped Cotton's licks myself, listening to his records over and over with my harp at my lips.  He is a titan of the tin sandwich.  I was excited to see him in my town - Mr. Cotton played Bill's Blues around 2004 or so, but he doesn't play the suburbs of Chicago much.

Mr. Cotton's voice is gone, but he still is a crazed monster on the harmonica.  His joy and enthusiasm have survived his voice.  He plays seated now (like B.B. King and other aging giants of the blues), but he runs the band and projects charisma and showmanship.  When a blues singer loses his voice yet still projects heart and power, you know you are in the presence of greatness.

The tunes that the band played were pretty predictable - "That's All Right" by Jimmy Rogers, "Honest I Do" by Jimmy Reed," "Rocket 88," which was a big hit for Cotton, and other chestnuts.  The beauty of blues music is in the depth, not the "newness," of the music.   Mr. Cotton brings that depth.

The sound man was having trouble getting the balance right between the harmonica, the vocals and the guitar/bass/drum unit.  Volume crept up through the evening until it became a crushing wall of pain by the end of the set.  SPACE is a mid-sized venue.  I don't understand why folks don't respect the size of the joint and amplify/mix accordingly.  This is not meant as a criticism of the sound man, by the way - sound engineers have the most thankless job on the planet, and their skills are underappreciated.  Everyone has an opinion about the sound, and the sound engineer has to listen first to the venue management and the artists.  I know that a sound engineer often gets many conflicting instructions.  And artists often do unpredictable things in a performance; a good mix can turn bad in a heartbeat due to those surprises.

My friend Tom Holland has been Mr. Cotton's guitar player for almost 10 years now.  Not only is this a great gig that offers ample opportunity for exposure and education, it has provided Tom with multiple "reps" so his chops are sharp as a razor these days.  Tom is very confident on stage, and carried the band as the only guitarist - and no keyboard player, either.  I have played a number of gigs with Tom back when I had my own little blues band, and I am really happy for him.  It is great to see a young guy carry the torch and grow as an artist.

Harp man Matt Skoller and guitarist Lurrie Bell opened for the Cotton band.  They warmed up the crowd and returned to the stage at the end of Mr. Cotton's set to jam.  James Cotton knew Lurrie and his dad, stand-out harmonica star Cary Bell, from the Chicago days.  And Mr. Cotton served as mentor to Matt Skoller.  Topping out the evening was Dave Specter taking the stage to play on "Black Night," the old Charles Brown standard that has been covered by everyone from Dr. John to Bobby Blue Bland.  It was good to see the SPACE founder cutting loose.

Since Mr. Cotton can't sing anymore, Darrell Nulisch sat next to him and filled that role.  Darrell has a solid, soulful voice and can mine the tunes for the emotion within them.  He is also a great harp player, so there were three harmonica guys (Cotton, Skoller and Nulisch) blowing on the stage at one point -   not something you see very often, and for good reason. I love the harmonica, but three guys showboating at the high-end of the harp at the same time can be very painful to the sensitive listener.  But, hey, it was still an awesome celebration of Cotton and his legacy.  And these three guys are all killer harp blowers, now doubt about it.

The festivities wound to a close at a respectable hour (11-ish) and I walked off my Guinness on the way home.  Thank you, SPACE!

Thursday, September 05, 2013


I am an "old school" curmudgeon. I believe that it is OK to have a tattoo if you are a Maori warrior, a sailor, a biker or a hooker. If you are a clerical employee riding an elevator in a highrise, a tattoo might not be a great idea.

I hopped in my elevator the other morning and was joined by a thirty-something woman in a scoop-top skirt. She had a long script phrase tattoo-ed around her collarbone region. It was not a work of art - it had the look of hasty graffiti. I am guessing that her choice of neckline was intended to allow this body art to be examined by the general public. This wasn't an opportunity that I seized - the last thing I want to do is stare at a female stranger's neckline in order to read her sloppy tattoo. I ended up feeling very awkward in the elevator and stared intently at my shoelaces until I reached my floor.

I have loved ones that sport tattoos. I understand that I am an inflexible grump that doesn't understand the significance and beauty of permanently marking your skin through a procedure that would be called "torture" if the CIA did it to suspected terrorists. I know that tattoos are in the mainstream now; I am a fossil not to embrace them. My loved ones have added my insensitive comments regarding tattoos to my long list of "invalidating behaviors." 

But tattoos are a form of permanent clothing, and styles change.  I will hang on to my bad attitude on this issue. So there.